Frank White’s big idea came to him from a window seat. As the airplane he was in climbed northward over the United States capital, the space philosopher noticed that the Washington Monument and Capitol Building glinted like miniature “toys sparkling in the sunshine.” The city gave way to grid and terrain and everything came into view: it was the overview effect.
According to White, it was a shift in awareness triggered by “the experience of seeing first‑hand the reality that the Earth is in space.” It became the motivation for his 1987 book, The Overview Effect, which was based on his interviews with astronauts, including former Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell who dubbed this instant global consciousness the “big picture effect.” Of course, a space flight or the cupola of the International Space Station provide optimal vantage points for this sort of cosmic clairvoyance, but White thinks that milder epiphanies can also be had closer to Earth.
Astronaut historian and University of Chicago post‑doctoral fellow Jordan Bimm traced the overview effect to the break‑off phenomenon, a sense of separation from the Earth identified in the 1950s by military pilots who flew at high altitudes. Even earlier, in 1935, French‑Swiss architect and designer Le Corbusier famously connected the eagle eye of the airplane to modern consciousness. And long before that, 19th‑century meteorologist and balloonist James Glaisher experienced a shift in his world view when he rose above the clouds, realizing that humans could be “free from all apprehension such as may exist when nothing separates us from the earth.”